The arrival in Israel of Pope Benedict XVI on May 14 is already being prepared for in earnest by Israeli and Catholic Church authorities. The visit of the Pontiff will include a formal call to Israel President Shimon Peres at Beit Hanassi, and to the Beit HaShoah Holocaust memorial as well as the usual holy places in the Old City and elsewhere. Benedict’s visit to Yad Vashem will be the second by a reining Pontiff following Pope John Paul II ‘s historic visit there in March, 2000. Being of German descent, and due to his membership in the National Socialist Youth Movement as a child, his visit to Israel and to Yad Vashem takes on an even more significant aspect.
The visit will not be without its problems, however, as the Catholic Church is presently in dispute with the Israeli government over the ownership of some church properties in Jerusalem and other locations, including the building on Mt. Zion which is known by the Church as the Coenaculum, where Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper. Other disputed properties include the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Church and Gardens of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the Monastery on the summit of Mt. Tabor; and the Church of the Multiplication, which is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee
President Peres, in a gesture of good will is trying to persuade the government to abide by the Church’s requests (demands?), hoping that this will enable more tourists and pilgrims to visit Israel and the Holy Land. So far, however, the government including the Interior and Tourism ministers are not ready to give these places up. As was noted to a Haaretz reporter by Tourism Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, “If we were certain this great gift would bring millions of Christian pilgrims to visit here we would have good reason to agree to these demands. But since we are not certain this will happen, why should we give out gifts?”
A considerable amount of Christian church property is in the control of various religious denominations, but these particular properties have been in dispute for some time, especially ones located in East Jerusalem since the Six Day War of 1967. The Pope’s visit in itself will be a logistical challenge, and some protests are being planned against the temporary closure of some of the holy sites he will visit, including the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth and the Kotel or Western Wall in the Old City.
Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000 had hoped to bring millions of pilgrims to Israel, due to it heralding the 2nd Millennium. But not only did this not happen (less than 100,000 actually came) but the Second Intifada broke out in September of the same year. Many people wonder now what will be the outcome of this papal visit, taking the current political and security state of the region into account.